Cooking with Kerosene

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Kerosene, also known as paraffin, is a transparent liquid fossil fuel which is generated from the refinement of crude oil. Kerosene is highly flammable and has been used all over the world for lighting, however with the widespread electrification in developed countries, the use of kerosene vanished. Kerosene is still widely used for lighting in developing countries, where it is also been used for cooking, and to a lesser extent for heating. It is estimated that more than 500 million households still rely on kerosene or other liquid fuels for lighting, which corresponds to an annual consumption of 7.6 billion litres[1].

Characteristics of Kerosene

The flash point of kerosene is between 37 and 65 °C, its auto-ignition temperature is 220 °C, and it has a high energy density of around 43 MJ/kg[2]. Chemically, kerosene is a mixture of hydrocarbons. The chemical composition depends on its source, but it usually consists of about 10 different hydrocarbons, each containing 10 to 16 carbon atoms per molecule[3]. The quality of kerosene can vary, and is determined by the impurity content, in particular for sulfur and aromatics, which reduce combustion efficiency and increase noxious emissions during combustion.

Cooking with Kerosene

Kerosene cooking is widespread in many developing countries, especially in urban households, where biomass needs to be purchased, and electricity and LPG are expensive or unreliable[4]. Kerosene is usually transported in bulk, with rural areas purchasing kerosene by litre or bottle. Research shows that there are a limited number of comprehensive studies that examine the quantity of kerosene used for cooking and for lighting. N. L. Lam et al. have analyzed surveys, reports, and local correspondence from 23 countries and assume a monthly consumption between 1 and 10 L per household[4]. Portable kerosene stoves are used for cooking with kerosene, especially the Primus stoves invented in 1892 or the wick-stove.

Cooking with kerosene has the following advantages:

  • Fast cooking when used in appropriate (pressurised) stoves.
  • Easy storage of fuel (however, there is a risk of erroneous consumption; see below).
  • It can be bought in small quantities, and thus is affordable (=low investment barriers) for poorer families.
  • It is an alternative stand-by technology for urban electricity users in case of power cuts.
  • It is an alternative where access to free biomass for cooking is not available.

However, the use of kerosene for cooking comes along with serious disadvantages:

  • Kerosene is an exhaustible resource.
  • When used in cheap wick stoves, kerosene can produce high levels of pollutants, and can significantly contribute to indoor air pollution and ill-health.
  • It has an unpleasant smell and frequently adds an unpleasant taste to the food being cooked.
  • It is highly flammable: every year it causes a large number of fires and deaths. This is mainly caused on careless handling and lacking safety features of cheap devices. User mistakes include fuel spillages, refilling while the burner is running, tumbling the stove while it is burning). An inherent problem of wick type stoves is the heating up of the tank when used for a long time, which can lead to the explosion of the stove.
  • It's a non-renewable fuel.
  • Kerosene is not particularly poisonous. However, if someone accidentally swallows kerosene there is the risk of short-term lung damage if vomiting occurs. On occasions, kerosene is responsible for a considerable number of deaths among children. Frequent skin exposure may lead to skin damage

For these reasons the use of kerosene as a household fuel should not be encouraged except in special cases (e.g. refugee camps with little access to biomass). If kerosene is the best fuel option, it should be promoted together with safe and efficient kerosene stoves. The World Health Organization discourages the use of kerosene in households because of the high risk of burns, poisoning, and deaths[5]. Cheap wick stoves and lamps can emit high levels of smoke emissions[6], which cause health problems. The emissions include hundreds of different compounds, which can be categorized into particulate matter, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, sulfur and nitrogen oxides[4]. Kerosene is sometimes mentioned as the clean alternative to biomass cooking fuels, however there are a lack of credible studies that thoroughly examine exposure concentrations, health effects of PM-composition, etc. to verify this assumption.

Further Information


This article was originally published by GIZ HERA. It is basically based on experiences, lessons learned and information gathered by GIZ cook stove projects. You can find more information about the authors and experts of the original “GIZ HERA Cooking Energy Compendium” in the Imprint - GIZ HERA Cooking Energy Compendium.

  1. Lam, N. L., et al (2012): Kerosene: A review of household uses and their hazards in low- and middle income countries
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Lam, N. L. et al. (2012): Kerosene: A Review of Household Use and Their Hazards in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

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